Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin has a lot to answer for. In the months after its publication, it became the printed equivalent of holy communion: wheresoever two or three people gathered together to break bread, it was earnestly discussed.
Shriver’s novel explored the possibility that a child could be born wicked; further, that it would be entirely possible for the mother of such a child actively to dislike her progeny. Whether the author set out to satirise the current western obsession with child-rearing, or simply to tell rather a chilling tale of American family life, Shriver produced a very readable and polished story.
Now we need to talk about books, plays and films influenced by We Need to Talk About Kevin. Hoping to hit the same collective nerve as the bestselling Shriver, these are all stories about contemporary parents and children, and things going badly wrong. There was The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, which examined the aftermath of a child being slapped by an exasperated guest at a suburban Australian barbeque. There was The God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, a play along similar lines. Best was Siri Hustvedt’s excellent What I Loved, about a monstrous stepson (a book which, arguably, predates Kevin). The Dinner is the most recent in this line.
Coming so late to the party, it is hard not to see the Dutch author Herman Koch’s novel as a cynical marketing exercise. The Dinner repeats many of Kevin’s themes: the secretive teenaged son performing acts of depraved violence; the complicity or otherwise of his parents, once these acts become known to them; a reductive rehashing of the nature vs nurture debate.
The Dinner begins, as dinners will, with an aperitif and progresses through a number of courses to its grisly end. At each stage we learn something new and unappetising about Michel, the teenage Kevin of the piece. The story is narrated by Michel’s father, Paul, who turns out to be a dangerous nutter himself. And just fancy: if a father is a violent neo-fascist thug, then a pre-natal test is capable of determining whether his child will inherit such tendencies. Or so the author would have us believe.
This pseudo-science strains credulity, as does the repeated plot device of people forgetting their mobile phones, thereby allowing the narrator to snoop and, where he deems it necessary, intercept. Paul’s views become ever more repulsive: that those accused of certain crimes should be pushed out of high windows before trial; or that, among the victims of the Holocaust, there were some frightfully unpleasant folk.
Towards the end of the book there is a sudden rush of such opinions, as if the author was worried he had left out something awful. He need not have feared. The Dinner is nasty and brutish and will no doubt prove immensely popular. It is possible that this novel sprang like a stream of clear water from Mount Parnassus into the author’s mind, but it reads as if it was
tailor-made from a list of material guaranteed to needle and provoke. As such, it will provide perfect fodder for dinner-party conversation. Bon appetit!